Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de (1533–1592)

views updated


Michel Eyquem De Montaigne, French essayist and skeptical philosopher, was born near Bordeaux. His father was an important merchant, and his mother belonged to a wealthy Spanish-Portuguese Jewish family that had fled to Toulouse. Montaigne was raised a Catholic and was given special training by his father, who would not allow him to hear any language other than Latin until he was six. At this time he was sent to the Collège de Guyenne at Bordeaux, where he studied with some of the leading humanistic teachers of the time, among them the learned Latin poet George Buchanan (15051582), who would later be arrested and charged by the Portuguese Inquisition for "judaizing" and skepticism. Montaigne also apparently studied at the University of Toulouse, a leading center of humanism and unorthodox religious ideas. For thirteen years he was a member of the parlement of Bordeaux and made several trips to Paris and the court seeking a more important position. His closest friend at this time was the stoic humanist and poet Étienne de La Boétie (15301563). Montaigne's first significant writing was a letter describing La Boétie's death, published at the end of the latter's Oeuvres in 1570.

In 1568 Montaigne published his French translation of Theologia Naturalis sive Liber Creaturarum ("Natural Theology or the Book of Creatures") by Raimond Sebond (Raymond of Sabunde, d. 1436), a fifteenth-century Spanish theologian who had taught at Toulouse. In Montaigne's translation he somewhat modified Sebond's rationalistic claims that unaided human reason could comprehend the universe and establish the existence and nature of God. Montaigne also published La Boétie's works before retiring from public life in 1571. The following year he began writing his most important work, the Essays, a series of rambling, erudite, witty discussions on a variety of topics, serving as a self-portrait. The longest of the essays, the "Apology for Raimond Sebond," was written about 1576 while Montaigne was studying the recently rediscovered treasury of Greek skepticismthe works of Sextus Empiricusand undergoing a personal skeptical crisis. He had mottoes from Sextus carved into the rafter beams of his study and adopted as his own motto, "Que sais-je?" ("What do I know?"). In 1580 the first two books of the Essays were published. Besides writing, Montaigne tried in vain during the 1570s to mediate between the Catholics and the Protestant leader, Henri of Navarre (later Henri IV).

In 1580 Montaigne went to Paris to present a copy of his Essays to the king; he then set out on a trip to Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, which he describes in his Travel Journal. The following year he was called back from Italy to become mayor of Bordeaux, a post he held for four years. He then added material to his earlier Essays and wrote a third volume of them; the complete edition was first published in 1588 in Paris. Montaigne went to Paris and probably negotiated on behalf of Henri of Navarre concerning his succession to the throne, his conversion to Catholicism, and the temporary settlement of the religious wars, which was later incorporated into the Edict of Nantes. Illness apparently prevented Montaigne from joining Henri IV's court, but he continued to revise his Essays. The final version was published posthumously in 1595.

"Apology for Raimond Sebond"

Montaigne's most important philosophical work, the "Apology for Raimond Sebond," had an enormous influence on the subsequent history of thought. A superbly written presentation of skepticism, it formulated a challenge that affected Descartes, Pierre Gassendi, Bacon, and many others and inspired monumental efforts to meet the challenge. The "Apology" gradually reveals a series of waves of doubt, continuously coupled with a new type of Christian fideism.

The essay begins with an accountprobably not very accurateof Montaigne's reasons for translating Sebond's Theologia Naturalis. Pierre Bunel, a Renaissance scholar, gave Montaigne's father a copy of the book, saying that it had saved him from Lutheranism. Long afterward, Montaigne's father asked his son to render it into French (from what Montaigne claimed was Spanish with Latin endings). After the translation appeared, Montaigne reported that some readersmainly femaleneeded help in comprehending Sebond's contention that all the articles of the Christian faith could be established by reason. Two major objections to this thesis had been raised: the first held that Christianity should rest on faith rather than reason, and the second maintained that Sebond's reasons were not good ones. Montaigne purported to defend Sebond by showing that because all reasoning is unsound, Sebond's is no worse than anyone else's and, therefore, religion should rest on faith alone.

Montaigne held that people are vain, stupid, and immoral, and he pointed out that they and their achievements do not appear impressive when compared with animals and their abilities. The "noble savage" of the New World seemed to possess an admirable simplicity and ignorance that did not involve him in the intellectual, legal, political, and religious problems of the civilized European.

Montaigne suggested that our sole contact with the truth was due not to our intellect or reason, but rather to the grace of God; he agreed with St. Paul that ignorance is more useful than learning in acquiring truth. To show this, Montaigne examined the teachings of the ancient schools of philosophy and argued that those of the Pyrrhonists were the best and the most compatible with the Christian religion. All of the other philosophies were in conflict with one another, contained contradictions and absurdities, and relied on fallible human faculties and questionable premises to reach their conclusions. Only Pyrrhonists showed humans as naked and empty, portrayed their natural weaknesses, and by ridding them of their false or dubious opinions, left their minds a blank tablet, ready to receive whatever God might wish to write upon them. The modern Pyrrhonist would not be led into heresy, because he or she would accept no reasons or arguments that are open to question. In contrast to the Pyrrhonists, who suspended judgment on all matters, other philosophers offered their own opinions as genuine truths. They thought that they had discovered the real nature of things and had measured the universe in terms of their own systems; they were only deceiving themselves.

In the later portions of the "Apology," Montaigne presented the Pyrrhonistic evidence that everything is dubious and that genuine knowledge must be gained either by experience or by reasoning. We do not, however, know the essence of what we experience (for example, the real nature of heat), and we do not even know the nature of our own faculties. We are constantly changing as our physical and emotional conditions alter, and the judgments we make and accept at one time, we find doubtful at another. Not only does this seem to happen to each of us, but it also appears to be the fate of humans in general. Each alleged scientific discovery is superseded by another, and what is thought true at one time is regarded as false or silly at another.

The new sciences of Copernicus and Paracelsus claimed that the ancient sciences of Aristotle, Ptolemy, and others were false. How could we know, Montaigne asked, that some future scientist would not make similar claims, on equally firm grounds, about these new discoveries? These same variations and disagreements occur in every area of human concern.

Montaigne then presented the more theoretical objections that Sextus Empiricus had raised about the possibility of gaining knowledge. All of our alleged knowledge, he argued, appears to come from sense experience, but perhaps we do not possess the requisite number of senses for gaining knowledge. Even if we do possess all of them, the information we gain through them is deceptive and uncertain. Illusions lead us to wonder when our senses are accurate. Dreams are often so similar to sense experiences that we cannot tell if sense experience itself is not really a dream. Each of our experiences differs from that of animals, from that of other human beings, and even from our other experiences; we cannot, therefore, know when to accept an experience as accurate. Such conditions as illness or drunkenness distort what we perceive. Perhaps normal experience itself is a kind of distortion.

In order to determine the accuracy of our experiences, we require a criterion. But we need some way of testing that criterion, and this requires a second criterion to establish how to test it, and so on. If reason is to be the judge of our experiences, then we need reasons to justify our reason, and so on, to infinity. Thus, if our ideas come from our sense experiences, we are hardly in a position to use our ideas to judge the nature of objects. Our experiences and our ideas tell us only how things seem to be, but not necessarily how they are in themselves. Trying to know reality, Montaigne concluded, is like trying to clutch water. We can deal with the world only in terms of appearances, unless and until God decides to enlighten us. In our present state, we can only try to follow nature, living as best we can.

Intentions and Influence

Montaigne questioned and cast doubt upon almost all of humankind's beliefs in philosophy, theology, science, religion, and morality, and criticized almost every superstition and accepted view. He insisted that he was merely showing the human inability to find truth by means of natural capacities and the human need to rely on faith as the sole access to truth. Montaigne's own portrayal of the human predicament succeeded in intensifying the doubts already produced by the religious crisis of the Reformation, the humanistic crisis of the Renaissance, and the philosophical-scientific crisis of revived Pyrrhonism. The three currents were fused into a massive and forceful onslaught in this "Apology." Montaigne's formulation of skepticism and the more didactic one of his disciple, Pierre Charron, provided the issues for seventeenth-century thought. Some, such as François de La Mothe Le Vayer, were to follow out the more destructive and anti-intellectual tendencies of Montaigne's doubt. Others, such as Marin Mersenne and Gassendi, were to formulate a mitigated skepticism that could accept its doubts while seeking information about the world of appearances. Still others, such as Bacon, Herbert of Cherbury, and Descartes, were to seek new philosophical systems to provide for human knowledge a basis impervious to Montaigne's doubts.

Some have seen Montaigne as a skeptic, questioning religion with everything else, and as the founder of the critical spirit of the Enlightenment. They have taken his fideism as a mask for his actual views and have portrayed him as a genuine freethinker and free spirit. Others have interpreted his fideism as an expression of his own resolution of his doubts. Although Montaigne lacked the religious fervor of Pascal, who regarded him as a skeptical nonbeliever, many of his contemporaries and later admirers took his skepticism as part of the Counter-Reformation, because it opposed the reasons and arguments of the Reformers by undermining the validity of all reasoning.

Montaigne played a vital role in the development of both Christian skeptical fideism and of the so-called libertinage, a later movement of critical freethinking that preceded the Age of Reason. His views are compatible with both roles, in that his doubts neither imply nor contradict either a religious or an irreligious conclusion. He was probably mildly religious, accepting Catholicism in the light of the religious wars of his time. He apparently opposed fanaticism and wished for toleration of all sides, recognizing man as a fallible, limited creature struggling to live and comprehend with weak and uncertain capacities. Without God's assistance, man could only try to understand himself, guided by the past and the present. To understand himself and his situation would at least make him doubtful of radical proposals for solving everything, make him more tolerant, andmost importantmake him capable of accepting himself and his fate. To philosophize, Montaigne said, was to learn to die.

See also Epistemology; Philosophy of Religion.


works by montaigne

The Essayes. Translated by John Florio. London, 1603. New York: Modern Library, 1933. The first English edition, probably known to Shakespeare and Francis Bacon.

The Essays. Translated by Jacob Zeitlin. 3 vols. New York: Knopf, 19341936. Good introduction and notes.

The Complete Essays of Montaigne. Translated by Donald M. Frame. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1958. The best modern translation, containing the essays, journals, and letters, plus an excellent introduction and annotated bibliography.

Œuvres complète. Paris: Gallimard, 1976.

Apologie de Raimond Sebond de la Theologia à la Théologie. Paris: Librairie Honoré Champion, 1990.

works about montaigne

Allen, Don Cameron. Doubt's Boundless Sea: Skepticism and Faith in the Renaissance. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1964. Reasserts the irreligious interpretation of Montaigne. See chapter 3.

Boase, Alan M. The Fortunes of Montaigne: A History of the Essays in France, 15801669. London: Methuen, 1935. A study of Montaigne's impact.

Brahami, Frédéric. Le scepticisme de Montaigne. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1997.

Brunschwicg, Léon. Descartes et Pascal, lecteurs de Montaigne. New York: Brentano's, 1944. Shows the influence of Montaigne on both Descartes and Pascal.

Brush, Craig B. Montaigne and Bayle: Variations on the Theme of Skepticism. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1966. See chapter 3.

Busson, Henri. Le Rationalisme dans la literature française de la renaissance (15331601). Paris: J. Vrin, 1957. Interprets Montaigne as a freethinker and as part of an irreligious, rationalistic milieu.

Frame, Donald M. Montaigne: A Biography. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1965.

Frame, Donald M. Montaigne's Discovery of Man: The Humanization of a Humanist. New York: Columbia University Press, 1955. A study of the development of Montaigne's thought.

Frame, Donald M. "What Next in Montaigne Studies?" French Review 36 (1963): 577587. A survey of the state of scholarship on Montaigne and an evaluation of various interpretations.

Giocanti, Sylvia. Penser l'irrésolution: Montaigne, Pascal, La Mothe Le Vayer, Trois itinéraires sceptiques. Paris: Honoré Champion éditeur, 2001.

Laursen, John Christian. The Politics of Skepticism in the Ancients, Montaigne, Hume, and Kant. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1992. See chapters 4 and 5.

Limbrick, Elaine. "Was Montaigne Really a Pyrrhonian?" Bibliothèque d'Humanisme et Renaissance 39 (1977): 6780.

Malvezin, Théophile Michel de Montaigne, son origine, sa famille. Bordeaux: C. Lafebvre, 1875. Contains much data about Montaigne's background and environment.

Popkin, Richard H. The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle. Rev. ed. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Popkin, Richard H. "Skepticism and the Counter-Reformation in France." Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 51 (1960): 5887. The role of Montaigne's skepticism in French Catholic theology of the time.

Strowski, Fortunat. Montaigne. 2nd ed. Paris: F. Alcan, 1931. The best-known scholarly modern French interpretation of Montaigne.

Villey, Pierre. Les Sources et l'évolution des essays de Montaigne. Paris: Hachette, 1908. Basic study of Montaigne's sources and the development of the Essays.

Villey, Pierre. Montaigne devant la posterité. Paris: Boivin, 1935. A study of how Montaigne has been interpreted.

Richard Popkin (1967, 2005)

About this article

Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de (1533–1592)

Updated About content Print Article


Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de (1533–1592)